New soil robotics and sensing for soil-root phenotyping of water-use effectiveness

Soil, the microbiome, and plant roots represent a critical frontier in agricultural science and practice. The opacity, heterogeneity, and dynamic nature of soils have severely limited in situ studies, phenotyping, and precise interventions as part of soil and crop management. Here, we will develop two innovations to access real-time information about the availability and flow of water in the rhizosphere: 1) a sensing strategy to provide sub-millimeter resolution of water relations (potential, content, and conductance) within the rhizosphere, in situ; and 2) a soil-swimming robot to provide semi-autonomous exploration of the root zone with multiple sensing modalities. We will pursue experiments with our emerging capabilities guided by scientific questions about roots and rhizosphere to drive new approaches to field-based phenotyping and management of irrigation and fertigation. The technology will lead to improved management of grain, horticultural, ornamental and tree cropping systems. Our project emphasizes a systems-based, trans-disciplinary approach and seeks to enhance and apply new innovations and technology to include below-ground phenotyping (e.g. rhizosphere plant-soil interactions), sensor technology (e.g., real time soil water flux), robotics (e.g., spatio-temporal environmental sampling).

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